March 6, 2016 / WON'T LET YOU DOWN / Sara Wolbrecht / Luke 15:1-3a, 11-24
Lent, this season that stretches between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Do you remember what the word “Lent” means? It means “spring” and we see these forty days as a time of spiritual spring cleaning, a time to dig into God’s story and our story and pay attention to who we are, and who we are becoming. And to do that, we have been following Ed’s Story, watching a video each week about Ed who was a pastor for decades, and was then diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. And though he was given 2-3 years to live, we enter the story at year ten. Ten years knowing his body is slowly dying. Ten years – when he could have given up, but instead chose to find meaning and purpose and distilled down to what matters most in life, when he knew he had little time left. And through Ed’s story we’re wrestling with the kinds of things that matter most in life – the beautiful, difficult, tender, wholehearted ways we can live in this world.
I wonder what kinds of things came up for you in response to the questions Sean asked us – when have you been let down? Let others down? (I know that is a huge gamut of possibility of things). How does it feel when we let someone down? What do we do when we let someone down? Or when someone lets us down? Today, Ed’s story will walk us into some of what we can do when it comes to letting others down, what it means to ask forgiveness.
So hold on to the things that have come up for you, be in touch with your own story. As we turn now to scripture. To get us where we’re going with Ed’s story, first we’re looking at God’s story, the gospel reading assigned to this fourth Sunday of Lent.
It is one of Jesus’ parables, Jesus uses parables, these little stories to tell about who God is, who we are, what the Kingdom of God is like. And this particular parable is very well known. It is usually called The Prodigal Son. For most folks who have been around the church it needs no introduction. It has inspired artists and writers down the years. Rembrandt’s famous painting with the younger son on his knees before the loving, welcoming father, has become for many almost as much of an inspiration as the story itself.
Familiar, and yet. As with everything we encounter in scripture, we look at it and we remember what our beloved Transformers taught us, that there is always what? More than meets the eye. True for the Transformers, and true for the Bible. So many beautiful layers of meaning in scripture.
Let us hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son – and we will only read and look at the first half, the part that deals with the younger son – oh, there is so much more if we were to keep reading. But here is where we’ll land. Notice what happens – imagine it as the story unfolds.
Luke 15:1-3a; 11-24
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
To see a bit more about what’s going on, let’s look at some family and cultural dynamics at that time, beginning with the younger brother. When the father divides the property between the two sons, and the younger son turns his share into cash, this meant that the younger son sold off his share to someone else. The land is no longer in the family – land is central to who a family is. Passed on through the generations. The shame this would bring the father would be added to the shame the son had already brought on by even asking for his share in the first place. Because: is his father dead yet? No! It was the equivalent of saying, “Hey dad, I wish you were dead. Give me my share of the inheritance.”
In our experience, in modern Western culture children leave home all the time, to pursue their dreams, to head to big cities – but in Jesus’ time, they didn’t leave. And even people today in more traditional cultures, like in Jesus’ day, find this so unbelievable. Fathers in that kind of culture just don’t behave this way. To experience that much shame from his son, it would have been “right” to have beaten him, or thrown him out. But he doesn’t. So we just catch our breath. Whoa! Why? There is a depth of mystery already built in to the story before the son even leaves home. Then as things play out, when the son reaches the foreign country, blows through the money, and finds himself in trouble, he reaches an even lower point. Because what does he end up doing? Tending to pigs. Let’s remember: Jews don’t do pigs. For him to be associating with them, bad. For him to be feeding them, and hungry enough to share their food, worse.
And yes, on one level as we read this, we put ourselves into this parable and see ourselves as the son who runs off and squanders things and misses the mark – that we are people who will let you down. (Thank you OK GO). And yet. And yet, if that is who we are in the story, then we get to encounter the father. Of course the truly remarkable character in the story is the father himself. And really, the parable is about the father. We need to rename this parable. So that when people say, oh yeah, “The Prodigal Son” we immediately lift a hand, shake finger and say (like my almost 2yo), no, no. This is The Parable of the Running Father (over the Rembrandt pic): for you see, in a culture where senior figures are far too dignified to run anywhere – it’s a sign of their importance and prestige to take their time – this man runs with all he’s got as soon as he sees his young son dragging himself home. He sprints. He embraces. He places the finest robe around him.
His lavish welcome is of course the point of the story: Jesus is explaining the remarkable generosity and welcome of God. Our God who hikes up his robes to sprint to us when we, when anyone, comes back to the fold of God’s grace. No matter how badly we have let someone down…no matter how much we have seemed to let God down, moving outside of the good, life-giving, beautiful bounds of God in our world. Here he is. The running father. THIS is the truly remarkable God who welcomes us, loves us, and yes, forgives us.
So my friends – if you are like me then you have times, days, when you feel drug down in your own pity party. Like you’re eating slop with the pigs in a distant land. When we have let someone down. Where we’re playing and replaying the thing that we did that was the wrong thing. Anyone else have those days? And yet the good word for us to hear is that we exist in the kind of world described in this parable, in relationship described in this parable, with this kind of God whose welcome gives us the ability to receive forgiveness and ultimately to forgive ourselves. To let it go. Let this sink in: This lavish grace is the landscape of our lives. This lavish grace is the water we swim in everyday. This is the life we have available to us – where no matter what we may do to hurt our friends, our kids, our partner, to hurt ourselves –– God is there, hiking up his robes to welcome us home, the running father, the only one who can truly and fully say, I won’t let you down. Because he won’t.
So onto this landscape we turn to Ed’s Story. In tonight’s video we see a piece of what it means for us to then live out this lavish grace in the everyday rhythms of our lives. Forgiveness. Grace. Lavish, humble, vulnerable grace. And we get to see a particular “let down” that happened in Ed’s life – where he had let someone down – we hear her tell the story, and we soak up Ed’s Story once again in video #5: Ask Forgiveness.
ED’S STORY #5: ASK FORGIVENESS
(we don't have permission to publish the Ed's Story videos publicly)
In what we’ve heard in Ed’s Story, and what we see throughout scripture, forgiveness is a foundational way of being that brings peace. In the past weeks here at Salt House during Lent, we have made time for confession – to breathe, to be honest about who we are before God, and to be welcomed home again and again into the embrace of our running father. And we’re making that kind of space now, as well as making space to wrestle with forgiveness – in whatever way it is stirring us tonight – we want to pay attention to that.
So here is the invitation as we come to Jesus’ table again tonight: to take the time we have and pay attention to this question:
What am I carrying around with me? WHO?
What I mean by that – what’s the thing (or things) that keeps coming up, gnawing at us, spinning our head around, frustrating us. What can we not put down? (Or who).
Like Ed, we can all make our own lists – our forgiveness lists. But we may be in different places when it comes to how to respond to this question. I want to suggest three possible ways to engage with this and take some action tonight.
First, you may be sitting there feeling like you need to experience forgiveness – let something go about you. You’re thinking: I am so the younger brother right now. For whatever reason, we may just need to experience the embrace of the running father. For the first time ever, or just because we are in a broken, hard, transitioning, tired, or aching place. To hear that we are ok, beloved, alive. You are invited to just sit fat and sassy in the grace of God if that’s what you need.
And you are invited to come and light a candle – we put out the Christ candle, which is the candle we use to really celebrate the Light of Jesus in the world – and it is what baptism candles are always lit from. If you need that kind of light. Head on over, light that candle, be still, pray. And also dip your hands in the waters of baptism – remember who you are – that who God says we are as beloved is the voice that speaks louder and truer than all the others.
Second, you may be in a place like Ed. Needing to ask forgiveness. And this is space and time to pay attention to who or what you need to let go of. To reach out to. To say you’re sorry and finally let it go – or let it go again. And maybe you’re not ready to take action – but naming the name is a great first step.
Or third you may be in a place where you are actually feeling more like the woman from the video – that you have been hurt, betrayed. You are holding on to a wrong that has been done to you. Then add it to your list. And maybe it’s time to look at what it means to let it go.
And we all probably find ourselves in all three of those areas, right? Let’s pray as we prepare our hearts and come to the table, again.